James Forsyth

Boris Johnson and the Tory identity crisis

Boris Johnson and the Tory identity crisis
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The Tory conference in Manchester will be a relatively muted affair. In part, this is because — as I say in the Times today — of the fuel crisis. Ministers are acutely aware that even if petrol queues ease this weekend, the autumn will be full of such difficulties. What is known in government as the EFFing crisis — energy, fuel and food — will be a theme of the next few months. Even cabinet optimists think the shortage of lorry drivers will produce flare-ups over the coming months as supply chains come under pressure.

But conference will also be more restrained because the Tories are wondering what they are for. At the last election, the answer was clear: getting Brexit done and stopping Jeremy Corbyn. This gave them a sense of purpose. As normal politics begins to resume post-pandemic, many are not so sure what the party’s new mission is. Downing Street insists it is 'levelling up', but many Tories are still uncertain as to what that means — or worry that it is code for taxing the south to spend in the north.

Johnson’s conference speech will be in line with his recent Gaullist turn. The Tories are very struck by research showing that voters hate the idea of post-Covid inertia and want government to get on with things to make up for lost time. Johnson therefore will use his conference speech to argue that instead of simply picking up where the UK left off in 2019, he is determined to address the big issues exposed or exacerbated by the pandemic. Johnson will point to his social care policy as an example of how he's prepared to take the tough decisions necessary to tackle problems that have gone unresolved for too long.

The Prime Minister will name health inequalities as one of the great challenges he wants to tackle. He views it as part of his levelling-up agenda. He is very struck by the fact that male life expectancy in Blackpool is 10 years lower than in Westminster.

Voters will only think the government is succeeding if it looks like it has a grip, which is why the forecourt chaos is so perilous for No 10. If people can’t fill up their cars, they're unlikely to think that the government is capable of delivering on its more ambitious promises.